Click Here to read 25 Random Things About Yoga…on the Huffington Post.
Me to a really good backbender, “Any advice on doing better backbends?”
His advice: “stop hiking and running; you’re tightening up your legs too much.”
Said to me by a yoga-practicing friend who lives in a place where “nobody walks”: “How can you walk so much? It must be hell on your yoga practice.”
These are the seeds of my discontent. They have blossomed, yes. But it started with statements like these.
Question: what happens when a healthy activity, a hobby, turns into an all-encompassing obsession that interferes with your ability to walk your dog, to get places on foot, to improve your cardiovascular health (don’t tell me Ashtanga is cardio. In many ways it is LIKE cardio, and portions of it might include cardio, but it is NOT cardio; it is anaerobic exercise, period, start and stop, high and low, the definition of anaerobic)? That interferes with your social life (no partying on Saturday nights), that confines your social life to people who “get it” (inevitably, your shala mates)?
What happens when you want your life back? (Do you become like me? Aggressively anti-cult? Do you close your eyes and pretend this never happened? What makes one person turn away in anger, and another in peace?)
What happens if you DON’T? (Do you give up all of your possessions that no longer make sense in your life? Does vodka become a distant memory, organic wine (blech) taking its place? Does every interaction with those who don’t “get it” become a strain? Something to gradually filter out of your life?)
A few weeks ago, I made plans to meet a friend at the CT Shala. I made the plans in good faith, thinking how nice it would be to meet up with him (we went to college together although we only know each other through the cyber-shala world) and to see some real life friends who practice with Val regularly. Ah, good intentions. Apparently, they are exactly where the rubber meets the road: I woke up on the appointed morning and couldn’t get myself out of bed. I tried, at first, to blame it on being tired. I wasn’t used to waking up early to practice within someone else’s time frame.
It bothered me to think that I didn’t have the discipline to wake up and get out of bed for practice. It bothered me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about it…until I realized that not being able to get out of bed for shala practice was the symptom, not the problem. The truth? I just didn’t WANT to anymore.
I sent my apologies and noted, “My practice is just not shala-ready.”
But even as I wrote it, I knew that it wasn’t exactly true. I mean, when I started my Mysore-style practice at Guy’s shala (actually, my very first practice ever was at Eddie’ Stern’s, but Guy’s shala was my first habitual place of practice), I was very much an Ashtanga beginner. I could barely bind Marichyasna A or B and couldn’t bind C or D without help. Supta Kurmasana was impossible without a towel between my hands. I couldn’t really even get to Supta Kurmasana without getting winded. I had no almost no backbend practice at all, and my Upward Facing Dog was nearly flat. Yet every day, I went to practice. Every day, I relished the experience, looked forward to it. On the rare occasion when I couldn’t get to practice for the late morning session, I went early. Or I came in the evening. It didn’t matter that I was humbled by the practice. I went anyway. It didn’t matter that it was difficult for me, and that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to complete the Primary Series. I went anyway.
So, not shala ready? What did that even mean?
What it means is that I am no longer willing to put myself in the hands of a Mysore-style teacher. Not that there is anything wrong with Val or Guy or Kimberly or any of them. It’s me. It’s my unwillingness to have my practice interrupted with assists I don’t want or need. It’s my unwillingness to NOT add in a set or two of Jivamukti-style sun salutations between Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B, if I want to. Or to add a set of Gomukhasana arms in before Parvotanasana. Or to add in a set of pigeon poses and a Hanumanasana before the Warrior poses. Or to do Pasasana after Marichyasana D instead of waiting until MILES later, after my body has long since forgotten twists. Or to add in all the leg-behind-head poses either before OR after Supta Kurmasana, just because I feel noodley and want to explore. Or to save all of the backbend poses for dead last so that I can warm up my back and my arms before having to press up into full wheel.
It’s my utter lack of receptivity to hearing that my breath should be louder. Or that I might want to consider bending my elbows in Upward Dog. Or to being treated to a midpractice jump-through workshop.
I just want to do what my body wants to do.
But truth be told, there is more than that. There are things that make me cringe about shala practice, things that I never thought would make me cringe. Things like American teachers pretending to speak like Indians (“you take”, “you do”). Things like practicing before an altar with a photo of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Things like students bowing before the altar, putting their hands in prayer over their head. Why? Why the bowing, sure, but WHY the prayer over the head? What does that even MEAN? Things like that requisite “Namaste” and bowing to the teacher upon leaving the shala. Things like being required to take Savasana. I NEVER take Savasana. I’ll sleep when I’m in BED.
And the worst thing of all: the impetus to perform. I. Just. Can’t. Anymore. I just can’t. I don’t wanna. People who comment here sometimes ask me, what happened to me? Who hurt me in the Ashtanga world? Who insulted me? Who made me feel small? Honestly? Nothing and no one. It’s all me. I just started waking up to the fact that I don’t want my workout (and YES, I have never been anything but honest about the fact that this is my workout) to be under someone else’s scrutiny. I want it to be for ME. I don’t want to do it for YOU, or for YOU or for YOU or for Teacher. I want to do it for me.
Yet…there I am on my mat, at home, but still imagining the audience. I still imagine what Teacher would think, what Teacher might say. When I practice Pasasana after Marichyasana D, I imagine the Hypothetical Teacher saying, “Yes, but it is EASY to do Pasasana when you’ve JUST done two deep twists before it. Try doing it COLD. Then you’ll REALLY be an Ashtangi.” When I do all the backbends in a row, same thing. And sometimes I become present enough on my mat to remember that there is no reason why it has to be done THAT way, instead of THIS way, except that someone said it. One person said it. And that person changed his mind quite often.
Until I can get to that place where I know I am doing this practice for me, until I get to the place where that Hypothetical Teacher is accepting of my body exactly as it is each day, and doesn’t mind when I give that body exactly what I know it needs, I won’t be comfortable doing my practice in a shala anymore.
In truth, I hope that someday I WILL be able to practice in a shala again. I’d even like for that day to be tomorrow. I just know that it isn’t. For now, I’m in recovery. Shala recovery.
This photo has been making the rounds on the internet. I saw it on Facebook, but it was also referenced on a blog I saw on Yoga Journal (Yoga Spy).
For those who don’t know, and apparently there are MANY out there in the wide world, it shows the modern founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, engaging in what can only be described – objectively, from looking at the photo – as inappropriate touching of two yoga students, under the guise of “giving an assist” or “giving an adjustment” in a yoga context. It was linked from failblog.org, as in “yoga instructor fail“.
As you can see from the comments on that blog, those who do not know who SKPJ was either roundly criticize the man for putting his hands where they absolutely should not be put, EVER in a yoga class, or joke about the sexual nature of the touching exhibited (“did these girls pay extra for a happy ending?” type thing).
What made the comments interesting to me is the question of what would a full-in, in-the-cult, ashtangi say? Would someone who is deeply committed to the ashtanga community believe that there is nothing wrong with this picture? Would they believe that something is wrong with this picture but convince themselves otherwise? Would they try to convince others otherwise? Would they try to send the message to the world that this photo is somehow “incorrect” or “out of context” when in reality, touching is touching, and no one should be touching anyone that way outside of an intimate and private relationship. No matter WHO is doing the touching.
I wondered about the people whose livelihoods depend on continued goodwill between them and the family of SKPJ – teachers of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga who have received or expect to receive or desire to someday receive authorization to teach this type of yoga. Would they refrain from commenting? Probably. But what would they be thinking? Would this be a chink in the armor of their guru (a guru whose feet I once sat at and kissed…truth be told)?
Psychologically speaking, we tend to emphasize in our own minds that information which supports our inner hypotheses, and we tend to overlook or dismiss that information which does not. It’s called “cognitive dissonance”. Would it be so against an ashtangi’s inner hypothesis of “SKPJ is my guru, and I kiss his feet” that the visual information contained in this photo would be “cognitive dissonanced” away? Dismissed? Like it didn’t exist?
As someone who has left the cult (although I still practice yoga and incorporate many of the physical lessons I learned while studying Asthanga), I see it as nothing short of abuse. Perhaps not intentional. Likely not intentional even. But an abuse that comes from being put on a pedestal for so long by your followers that you longer have to keep your behavior in check.
It’s an age-old story really.
Anonymous comments on this blog are permitted, and I hope that you will weigh in.